China discovered the new coronavirus in December, but chose to hide it from the world. Now nearly every nation on earth is paying the price for China’s actions.
Olivia Enos, a senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, joins the show to discuss her recent report, “How the Chinese Government Undermined the Chinese People’s Attempts to Prevent and Respond to COVID-19.“
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
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Virginia Allen: When the coronavirus was first discovered in Wuhan, China, the Chinese Communist Party tried to cover it up. Doctors who were treating patients with the virus and citizen journalists who [were] trying to report on the situation were silenced.
China has restricted aid from foreign humanitarian organizations and the limits they place on free speech and nonprofits within their own nation have restricted efforts to fight COVID-19 quickly.
Here with us to break down China’s role in covering up the coronavirus and what America’s response should be is Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst in the Asian Study Center Olivia Enos. Olivia, thanks so much for being here.
Olivia Enos: Thank you so much for having me, Virginia.
Allen: Now, you have just completed and published a wonderful long report titled “How the Chinese Government Undermined the Chinese People’s Attempts to Prevent and Respond to COVID-19.”
And Dr. Li [Wenliang], we’ve heard a little bit about him. He was the initial doctor that discovered COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. What do we know about Dr. Li in his attempts to inform the world of, really, the seriousness of this virus?
Enos: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s just amazing that China essentially took a classic play out of its playbook this time around by starting to silence whistleblowers like Dr. Li, as you mentioned.
Dr. Li started to see an emergence of a pneumonia-like virus and he really just sort of sounded the alarm on it, and especially given that it was so infectious. He was called in for questioning, forced to recant what he had said about it.
Unfortunately, Dr. Li actually ended up dying of coronavirus himself. But he was sounding the alarm all the way back in December and we really didn’t start hearing reports emerging from China until January.
So I think that there was a lot of lost time due to the fact that Dr. Li was silenced from the start.
And not only did you have Dr. Li and other whistleblowers being told to stay quiet on this, but you also saw China and the Chinese Communist Party saying, “We’re not going to allow civil society to be involved in a really major way. Instead, we want the Chinese Communist Party to be the hero, the primary agent that is acting to respond to this virus and we want to sideline the Chinese people and the civil society,” that really could have helped in responding, especially early on.
Allen: Olivia, I think for so many of us in our Western culture this is just so bizarre for us to hear, that a medical professional would come to the government and say, “I have real concerns about this,” and their response would be total cover-up.
Could you just explain a little bit about how the Chinese really operate and is this behavior really in alignment with what we have seen from China’s party before?
Enos: I think this is very typical and, in fact, when I first started researching for the paper, I didn’t realize that the silencing of whistleblowers in the context of a major health crisis had actually happened previously.
There was a similar incident where a doctor sounded the alarm during the SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003, and he started calling into question some of the government’s reporting on this and he started to really let the world know that actually the rate of infection and the number of deaths due to then SARS was much higher than what the Chinese government was reporting.
So this is very typical of China and the Chinese Communist Party likes to maintain a tight grip on information.
This is why they have their famous firewalls that restrict people’s access to different resources on the internet.
It’s why the Chinese government has consistently engaged in tamping down on religious expression, whether somebody is a Christian or Muslim or a Falun Gong practitioner or a Buddhist or any faith, because they see it as threatening to the Chinese Communist Party.
It’s also the reason why they have historically tamped down on civil society.
So a lot of the restrictions that were outlined in the paper, for example, the Chinese government preferring, it’s really a misnomer, but they call them government-affiliated nongovernmental organizations, as the only ones that can respond really just shows and demonstrates to us that the Chinese government is willing to sideline civil society.
It’s really, I think, at the end of the day, because the Chinese Communist Party prioritizes its own image and its own well-being above the well-being and health of the Chinese people. And I think we’re seeing that play out during COVID-19.
Allen: Yeah. So, obviously, within China there are restrictions on those “nonprofits” that are allowed to operate, and like you say, they’re really kind of tied to the government and it’s not at all what we would typically think of a nonprofit. What about outside organizations, I mean, groups like Doctors Without Borders, have they been allowed into China?
Enos: By and large any sort of aid and assistance from international NGOs has been turned away and it’s been done in favor of the Chinese NGOs like the Chinese Red Cross.
The Chinese Red Cross actually has a very checkered history but even in more recent days they’ve really fallen under fire for misappropriating the aid that they received because there are documented cases by The New York Times of them essentially taking aid that was supposed to go to the Chinese people and instead giving it to the Chinese government.
So I think you really are seeing the Chinese government hamstringing its own response by saying, “No, we’re not going to allow other NGOs in.”
Just for context, in the U.S., faith-based organizations, faith-based universities or health care systems or other NGOs, they contribute $303 million annually to the economy.
This is huge in terms of total assistance and this is what the Chinese government is missing out on when they say that faith-based organizations aren’t allowed to be represented in China.
Imagine what it would be like if China itself had its own domestic faith-based and, of course, non-faith-based civil society actors that were able to respond on such a massive scale.
Allen: Let’s go back for a second and just talk a little bit about when this first started in China and those initial discoveries that the Chinese people were making.
We know in addition to medical professionals that there were also some citizen journalists that really caught wind of this and they tried to warn the Chinese people and the rest of the world what was going on, what happened to those journalists?
Enos: You’re absolutely right. There were a lot of individuals [that] were, in some cases, human rights lawyers-turn[ed]-citizen journalists. In some cases, businessmen-turned-citizen journalists or just ordinary Chinese.
What we started to see was that the Chinese Communist Party was essentially making them disappear. And the excuse would be that they were going into forced quarantine due to COVID-19, but the forced quarantine happened several months ago and the quarantine time period is 15 to 21 days, typically. And they have not yet reappeared, as far as I can tell.
So this is very typical of China. You see critics often being silenced in one way or another, whether that’s them being subjected to reeducation through forced labor, them actually being killed. We’ve had individuals who’ve actually visited The Heritage Foundation in the past who returned to China and ended up dying like a week and a half later.
And these are very well-known advocates for freedom, for faith-based organizations. Some of them were Christian. So it’s really alarming to see that happening.
But, of course, the most massive scale that we’ve really seen is in more recent years, the rapid collectivization of Uighur Muslims to the tune of 1 to 3 million that are currently held in political reeducation facilities today where they’re subjected to indoctrination, where they’re forced to rescind a lot of what they believe, forced to learn Mandarin, and in some cases tortured or required to engage in forced labor.
So really what we’re getting is this picture of a Chinese Communist Party that does not respect civil liberties, that does not respect individual freedom. And we should be very concerned.
Allen: We also know of a man, he was a Christian by the name of Sun Feng, and in the midst of all this information starting to come out in China, he just sent a message to some friends of his and said, “Hey, we should really all begin to pray and fast that this virus is ended.” What happened to Sun Feng?
Enos: Yeah, it’s a really remarkable story. Mr. Sun was actually called in for questioning and was told that he was called into questioning for offering up “unauthorized prayers.”
I think this example really highlights the fact that the Chinese Communist Party invades into the most private and closely held beliefs of individuals.
I mean, this is a behavior that does not harm anyone, to engage in prayer and fasting, but the Chinese Communist Party sees it as a threat because they’re really threatened by anything that might be perceived as an authority that individuals might give their allegiance to that is not the party.
So I think this is, obviously, very concerning but also typical of China where you do see the targeting of people simply for having faith.
Allen: Yeah. Wow. And one of the ways that now we’re seeing that China is trying to control the virus and the spread is through an app called Alipay Health Code that actually ranks someone in China on how likely they are to be a carrier or to have been exposed to the virus. But there are a lot of concerns about this app and just that it’s really highly invasive of people’s personal privacy.
Can you explain just kind of what the app is, what it does, and why it poses privacy threats?
Enos: Yeah. The Alipay Health Code app is a huge invasion of privacy. It essentially gets downloaded onto your phone and it has the ability to communicate with local law enforcement by sharing very personal data, including your GPS location. I think it actually has the ability to register your temperature too. It definitely tracks transactions.
But it’s incredibly invasive and it does share that private information with law enforcement, and the individual’s ranking—the different color codes, as you mentioned, that people receive—can be affected by whether or not you’re a member of the Chinese Communist Party, which should have absolutely nothing to do with your susceptibility or likelihood of contracting COVID-19, it’s just been really remarkable to watch that.
And especially to see the rollout of this app against the backdrop of the Chinese government’s more sinister use of surveillance technology, which we know is one of the ways that they were able to rapidly collectivize the 1 to 3 million Uighur that are currently held in political reeducation facilities today.
So even though the Chinese government or maybe even other people who are looking at, well, how do we develop the smartest or most effective response to the coronavirus might say, “Well, why don’t we deploy surveillance technology?”
But I think given China’s sinister use of it and the lack of rule of law and accountability that exists in China, I think this is a pretty concerning use of the technology and definitely should lead people to ask questions like, how will this be used once COVID-19 is over?
Allen: Oh, wow. Yeah, that’s scary. So, in other words, it could be an app that the Chinese government kind of decides, “Oh, actually, this is helpful. We’ve liked collecting this information. We’re just going to keep doing it.”
Enos: Exactly. And then they can use it to target their political opposition. And, as we talked about before, just the way that they so quickly pulled citizen journalists aside and put them in forced quarantine or the way that they responded to Dr. Li, it’s just abundantly clear that that surveillance technology can be used to silence their opposition and that they’re not afraid to use that.
Allen: Wow. So considering the way that China has really handled this virus and the whole situation in trying to cover it up, do you think that America should be taking actions right now to really reprimand China for their actions? And if so, what would that look like?
Enos: Well, I think that … the U.S. definitely should call upon China to respect freedom of speech, respect civil society’s ability to act and respond, and, of course, respect freedom of religion.
And that’s something that we have been doing to press on China for a long time now, especially on requesting things like loosening the restrictions for civil society organizations to be able to register, etc.
But I think in the midst of COVID-19 we have an especial amount of leverage in order to press for those because the U.S. is the top single country donor to China in the midst of the coronavirus. We’ve donated, as of mid-March, $1.3 billion to try to alleviate the suffering of the Chinese people.
So, in addition to requesting that China respects these rights and pushing on them in diplomatic engagements with them, I think that we should also be requesting access for the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] because if the Chinese Communist Party isn’t willing to put their best foot forward in order to help the Chinese people, then perhaps the U.S. government can.
I think that beyond that we need to communicate to Chinese government officials that the U.S. is watching and that we have tools in our tool box, Treasury specifically, that would enable us to target individuals on human rights and corruption grounds.
So while we may not sanction them only for things that they’ve done during their coronavirus response, we will definitely be looking for ways to target individuals who are engaging in religious freedom violations and suppressing freedom of speech as a general habit.
Allen: Are you hopeful that we might see China kind of take from this situation, “Oh, wow, there are real benefits to being a freer society, maybe we should kind of try that out”? Is there really any possibility that we might see them loosen anything or do you think that’s highly unlikely?
Enos: I think we can always hold out hope, but I do think it’s unlikely, especially under President Xi Jinping’s leadership where we’ve just seen almost a rapid return to almost an old version of what China used to be like during the Cultural Revolution.
And I think this is especially vivid, as I mentioned before, in the case of their treatment of the Uighur, but certainly true of Tibetan Buddhists, in their crackdown on Christians.
I really think that Xi Jinping has tried to consolidate power and so I’m skeptical of any rapid changes, but I think the U.S. government has long been out there actively promoting freedom, not just for folks in the U.S. but for people all over the globe.
And I think this is a really unique time in the midst of a global pandemic for Americans to demonstrate the resiliency of a democracy.
I mean, one of the most beautiful things—even in going through suffering and being in our social distancing, pseudo quarantine states ourselves—has been seeing average Americans step up. Whether that’s people offering to go and get groceries for their neighbors or churches being willing to give up their tithe or civil society organizations that are making sure that people have masks.
I think that even if we can’t convince the Chinese government to change its ways, at the end of COVID-19, if the Chinese people know that average Americans care about them and want what’s best for them and want them to get healthy and recover from COVID-19, I think we will consider that a success.
Allen: Olivia, thank you so much for your time today, just really appreciate your perspective and all of the research that you have done and just sharing that information with us today.
Enos: Well, thank you so much for having me on, Virginia.